An Orangutan on north east Borneo, not far from the Maliau Basin, which will soon be nominated as a World Heritage Site
An Orangutan on north east Borneo, not far from the Maliau Basin, which will soon be nominated as a World Heritage Site

In Malaysia, authorities have ended years of debate and announced they will seek a World Heritage listing for the Maliau Basin, a pristine wilderness area in remote northern Borneo.

The decision to seek World Heritage status will effectively save the isolated and celebrated rain forests from timber and mining interests.

The basin covers almost 600 square kilometers, hidden so deeply within Borneo that it was only discovered in the 1970s. Much of it remains unexplored. Scientists hail the Malaysian government's decision on a heritage listing as a victory for the environment.

Glen Reynolds, director of the Royal Society's Southeast Asian rain forest program, says a listing will go a long way toward securing the forest's future.

"Oh it's fabulous, I think it's the most amazing bit of forest I've ever been in," he said. "There's certain bits of Maliau Basin I doubt there's ever, [that] anybody's ever set foot. The terrain is very difficult, it's a got a certain degree of natural protection if you like in as much as it's very inaccessible, but you know it's really extraordinary."

Miners and timber conglomerates have long eyed the minerals and trees in the basin, which is home to clouded leopards, orangutans, rhinoceros, pigmy elephants and hundreds of waterfalls.

Concerns for what remains of Malaysia's native habitat prompted a decision by the Sabah state government that gave the go ahead for the Maliau Basin to be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

But Reynolds notes that rain forest preservation can only be achieved by including timber companies and miners within the conservation process.

Malaysian resource company Sime Darby is negotiating to finance a 10-year scientific study of altered forests and their ecosystems. Funding is expected to top millions of dollars.

"Most forested areas and obviously plantations, it's all held by big corporates," he said. "So if we're going to conserve these forests, better manage them, then you've got to be working within and in partnership with these companies. They are the major land managers now in this part of Southeast Asia so it's critical that we're engaged with them."

Increasingly companies and governments realize that carbon trading - where industrial polluters pay countries with large forests to keep trees standing could prove a lucrative way to raise the money to protect the environment, and fund economic growth.